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Resources for Writers

Is a Writing Retreat Right For You? by E.R. Murray

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Article by E.R. Murray ©.
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I’m a bit of a travel-a-holic and I hate routine, so I regularly go on writing retreats to recharge, refresh and write somewhere new. Some of these retreats have been part funded, some I have just paid for, some were invites, but whatever the situation, I look at them as an investment – they enable me to go deeper into my work, work in different ways, and explore new places/ideas. I go on several retreats a year and it’s become an essential part of my writing practice and great fun too, and I’m regularly asked about why I find them so beneficial, what they entail, and how to find them. And so, I thought I’d share some thoughts on what retreats are and how they might benefit you as a writer…

Why go on a retreat?

A retreat is somewhere you go to have space from your everyday life, to give your writing or other creative project the time, focus, and dedication it deserves. It’s for people at all stages and each person on retreat will have different needs. For instance, they may not get any full writing days at home and therefore need uninterrupted time. They might not have a room of their own to work in and so the uninterrupted space is important. They might be losing momentum or motivation and need a fresh space to kick start again. They might have intense edits back from an agent or editor that they need to make sense of. Others might not get any headspace, so they go on retreat when they need solitude to be able to go deeper into their projects, their stories. The whole point of a retreat is the chance to work to your own rhythm to achieve your own goals.

Types of Retreat

Some retreats are fully catered and some are self-catering, some accept just one arts discipline, e.g. writers, while others accept various disciplines e.g. artists, writers, composers, dancers, actors etc. Some retreats will have a writing desk in your room, others will have a separate office space where you can sit and write. There are retreats all over the world, in all kinds of locations, and they will each offer something unique.

I’ve come across people quite confused by the whole retreat set-up; they expected a series of workshops, or lots of social interaction and readings, and while some of these things might happen, it very much depends on the people on retreat and their personal goals. For instance, if someone is there for a week and you’re residing for a month, your needs, the way you focus your time, and your working process will probably differ.

Some places call themselves ‘retreats’ but they are, in fact, taught residential courses, which is a different thing entirely – these are great if that’s what you’re looking for, but don’t go to a retreat expecting to be hand held. It’s a place for you to take control of your working day, be who you need to be, and at whatever pace you need to get your work done.

Sometimes retreats may be called residencies, but I’m using the term ‘retreat’ here to differentiate from the paid residencies that require a lengthy submission process and a certain level of expertise and experience, like a job application. The places I’m discussing do have an application process – the organisers need to know you’re there to work – but they are (mostly) open to all and are intended to enhance your work, rather than being a career move.

Choosing a retreat

Like with any other trip away from home, you need to do your homework and choose what suits you as a person. And one of the biggest considerations is time; if you have a week, apply for a week’s retreat, if you have a month, look for longer retreats. I know it sounds simple but I know people apply for a month’s retreat and then ask if they can go for just a week, only to be disappointed. Each retreat has its own format that’s tried and tested, and you need to adhere to that.

Choose a retreat that has all the amenities you require – working in solitude and going deep into your work is challenge enough, so finding issue with your surroundings is a distraction and you won’t get the most out of your time. Don’t pick a retreat in Australia, for instance, if you have a phobia of spiders or long distance flights! If you want access to shops/museums, don’t choose somewhere rural.

So if you like comfort, book somewhere luxury. If you like quirky, book somewhere with character. If you like variety, consider booking a retreat that’s multi-discipline as the conversation won’t be just about your particular art form, and if you like social interaction, try a catered retreat where amazing conversations can happen around the dinner table. A retreat is your chance to enjoy an environment that offers exactly what you need to be able to create, uninterrupted.

Expectations

Don’t be surprised if you come across people making tea and they don’t want to talk; they’re still working. They’re in their head where they need to be, figuring something out. Don’t judge the people only just getting out of bed at midday; they were probably enjoying the luxury of being able to work until dawn. If you come across someone working in a public area, or reading, respect their space. And, likewise, don’t be afraid to express what you need also; if you want to take a walk, but alone, then say so. This is the environment where people understand.

So what about cost?

Retreats differ in cost as some are subsidised by arts councils, while others are small businesses run by creatives, but all costs will be clearly visible on the retreat’s website. Consider also the extras such as flights, travel to/from airports at either end, food in the locality (if self-catering). There are also often bursaries and competitions available (Greywood Arts in Cork are currently offering a week-long Winter Writing Retreat Award), and some retreats offer reduced prices for return visits or for helping out in some way. For instance, la Muse Retreat near Carcassonne offers barters and partial barters where you swap your particular skills – it could be anything from assisting with social media to plastering a wall – in return for reduced or no cost accommodation. Hunt around, you’ll be amazed.

I’m productive at home – will a retreat be a waste of time?

If, like me, you write almost every day anyway, you may not think a retreat is relevant to you and the way you work – and you might be right. But where I find the value is making the writing the most important part of the day again; work and the business side of publishing inevitably becomes more demanding on your time, and so a residency is a chance to switch on an Out of Office message, get stuck into the current WIP, and flip the working day on its head. It’s the chance to say, this project is important to me and, even if it’s just for a week, I’m giving it priority. It’s also a chance to think without the minutiae of day to day life interrupting. It’s like a warm-up; a full-on sprint before the marathon of work that comes after; it gets everything pulsating and the muscles working and it’s amazing how positively a retreat can impact your writing when you return to your regular life.

Be prepared…

Many people have routines or rituals when they create, so keep this in mind when you go on retreat. If you need a certain scented candle or type of drink or woolly socks, or have special dietary requirements, check if they’re available and if not, bring them with you. if you’re noise adverse, bring ear plugs; there are usually set quiet times and I’ve never been on a retreat yet where these times haven’t been respected, but I have been on a retreat where a woman was nearly driven out of her mind by gangs of frogs croaking outside her window at night and she couldn’t get a wink of sleep! I also think it’s a good idea to know exactly what you want out of the retreat – is to come away with a first draft completed? Or four chapters edited? Or a plot outline? Are you working on characters or dialogue or pace? Or even all of the above? Having a goal will help you get the most out of your time.

Allow downtime – be a participator, explore

I’m also a firm believer in taking time out. This is something I’ve been slow to appreciate, but more and more I’m seeing the value of downtime. You’ll be amazed how long the days seem on retreat, so explore the local area, meet people, discover what’s on the book shelves and read something new, step outside your usual routine – it’s all part of it and it’s enriching. The downtime will fuse inevitably into your work in some way.  Your downtime experiences might end up inspiring a story or character – I got the idea for a flash fiction piece called ‘Storm Witch’ for Reading the Future (Arlen House) sitting in a natural sauna in Iceland, watching the shifting light through holes in a roof – but at the very least it will increase motivation and allow you to return to your work with fresh eyes.

Finding your retreat

To see an annual list of retreats and paid residencies, check out Aerogramme Studio

You can also google eg ‘writing retreats in Iceland’ if you have a specific place you’d like to visit. Here are some of my personal favourites:

Greywood Arts, Cork, Ireland (self-catering, separate writing study, pub/woods nearby)

Gulkistan, Laugarvatn, Iceland (self-catering, natural hot springs, great exploring)

La Muse, France (self-catering, mountain walks, local sightseeing)

Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Monaghan, Ireland (fully catered, multi-discipline, incredible atmosphere)

Varuna, Blue Mountains, Australia (fully catered, national park hiking, nature – you can get your spot from Ireland via the Tyrone Guthrie Exchange programme).

 

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E.R. Murray writes novels for children and young adults as well as short fiction. Her books include The Book of Learning – Nine Lives Trilogy 1 (2016 Dublin UNESCO City of Literature Citywide Read for Children), The Book of Shadows – Nine Lives Trilogy 2 (shortlisted for 2016 Irish Book Awards and 2016 Irish Literacy Association Award), The Book of Revenge – Nine Lives Trilogy 3 and Caramel Hearts. Recent anthology publications include The Elysian: Creative Responses (New Binary Press) and Reading the Future (Arlen House). Elizabeth lives in West Cork, where she fishes, grows her own vegetables and enjoys plenty of adventures with her dog, Franklyn. You can find out more about Elizabeth on twitter @ERMurray.
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